'Fraction of sound' offers crash clue

Agony goes on as TWA team banks on 'black boxes', reports David Usborne
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The Independent Online
New York - Hours after navy divers at last retrieved the two "black boxes" from the wreckage of TWA 800 on the ocean bed, analysts yesterday reported detecting a "brief fraction of a second's sound" from the cockpit voice recorder at the very end of the recording and therefore at the moment the plane met its end. There was no word, however, on what the sound may have been.

The boxes, actually painted orange, had been flown to the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington for analysis. One is a voice recorder with tapes of cockpit conversations; the other should carry data on the plane's mechanical status at the time of the disaster.

President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, promised new measures to increase aviation security in the United States. They will include an obligatory and comprehensive search of every aircraft leaving and arriving in the US. "Every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time", he said, acknowledging that the procedures would push up fares and cause passengers inconvenience.

The discovery of the boxes represented the first breakthrough in an investigation that has otherwise been agonisingly slow in producing results. It became clear last night, however, that it may be some time before analysis of the voice and data tapes might yield concrete clues to what befell the aircraft when it crashed into the sea and particularly whether it was downed by sabotage or by mechanical failure.

"I am not going to try to analyse what's here," Robert Francis, the chairman of the NTSB, insisted after reporting the discovery of the "sound" on the voice tape. He added that the tapes in the mechanical data recorder had been somewhat damaged by their immersion in the water, but said: "It is expected that all of the contaminated date will be recorded."

The hitherto crawling pace both of the investigation and of the task of recovering bodies from the wreckage has led to outbursts of bitterness from friends and relatives of the victims staying at a hotel closed to John F Kennedy airport. Of the 230 who died in the crash, the bodies of 114 had been recovered by yesterday morning and 95 had been identified.

The President visited the hotel to console the families with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other measures announced by Mr Clinton included stepping up airport searches and scanning of baggage going onto aircraft flying in the US. Vice-President Al Gore, meanwhile, will head a commission that will report in 45 days on other steps that may be taken.

"Whatever needs to be done, we will do it," Mr Clinton said. "The safety and security of the American people must be our top priority". Even as the measures were aimed at protecting against criminal attacks on aircraft, the President reiterated that the cause of the crash remained a mystery.

In a diplomatic move stemming from the downing of Pan-Am 103 over Lockerbie eight years ago, the US, Britain and France circulated a letter at the United Nations yesterday claiming that sanctions subsequently imposed on Libya for its role in the attack are being partially ignored by countries around the world.

It identified China and Lebanon as being among nations that have allowed Libya's diplomatic presence in their capitals to rise, and Jordan and Egypt, among others, as illegally allowing Libya to operate offices in their capitals for the state airline, Libyan Arab Airlines.